Every now and then, a motorcycle tour goes sideways. Not in a physical sliding and wrecking kind of way (though that can happen too), but in perfect storm of one logistical nightmare after another. Days 13 and 14 of my Redbeard Cruise were sideways kind of days. The whole sordid story starts pleasantly enough in Durango, Colorado, peaks in its second act conflict in Carbondale, Colorado, and ends on day 14 in Leadville, Colorado.
Pre Day 13
Not much to say. I’d fully caught up on trip reports (even the videos) the night before. I got up, showered, and packed. It was another sparkling day, but with a chance of late afternoon showers in the mountains. The day was still cool as I pointed the Nightowl east on US160 out of Durango.
Morning of Day 13
I took US160 east through Pagosa Springs and on to South Fork. This stretch is plenty scenic, but it isn’t my favorite largely due to the fact that it’s heavily traveled. There are many passing zones along this route, so much so that some stretches of the route are constantly three lanes wide with the center lane switching between eastbound and westbound traffic to provide at least one direction a passing lane. The highlight is the climb though Wolf Creek Pass.
I’d planned to turn north onto Colorado highway 149 at South Fork. It crests two mountain passes and is fairly remote, so starting this 110 mile stretch with a full tank is a good idea. I filled up at a station at South Fork and noticed that they had free air for filling tires! That’s fairly rare these days. The front tire was a couple of pounds low, so I topped it off too.
North of South Fork, CO149 follows the path of the Rio Grande river (yes, that Rio Grande). This far up in the mountains, the Rio Grande is small enough that you could probably wade across it, though it moved pretty fast of here since the elevation drops at a good clip. The road follows the river across plateaus and through canyons. If you keep a look out, you can see pieces of an old railroad right-of-way along this route, complete with antiquated bridges over the river.
Pretty soon, I was at Creede, Colorado, which is in he closed end of a box canyon. CO149 comes into town from the east along one canyon wall and exits on the opposite canyon wall. The curious thing is these two roads are only about 300 yards/meters apart and in clear view of each other. For a brief moment, it makes it look like all roads lead to Creede.
I was getting hungry, so I found a place that looked like it had locals parked in front of it: MJ’s Cafe. I had a grilled turkey with cheese and macaroni salad, washed down with Diet Pepsi.
Afternoon of Day 13
Not far north of Creede on CO149, you encounter something geographically interesting: the headwaters of the Rio Grande river. It’s a lake full of runoff from the surrounding mountains. Eventually, a small dam was installed to keep some of the water for recreational use. While I didn’t travel the several miles up a side canyon to visit that valley, you can see it from one of the CO149 overlooks.
I caught a little rain coming over the Spring Creek Pass, but not enough to put on my rain gear. I found myself zipping up my sleeves and closing my collar and front vents since the nice warm day was now much cooler: 51º F (10.6ºC).
You don’t descend far down the north side of Spring Creek Pass before you start climbing again. This climb is up Slumgullion Pass. (I’d love to know where that term came from; perhaps a verbal fight between rival miners back in the early 1800s.) This time there was no rain, but it was still chilly. I stopped for a few photos.
When you descend the north side of Slumgullion Pass, you end up in a nice little remote mountain town: Lake City. I was disappointed to see one of my favorite Lake City dining establishments was closed; perhaps another victim to the COVID-19 lockdown.
Continuing north out of Lake City, you follow the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, even dropping down to join it in a canyon. I’ll try to include some of that footage in a video.
Some of the country north of Lake City really speaks to me. It’s got plenty of elevation, punctuated by a few cliff faces and rough-hewn rock formations. The valley floors are mostly grazing land for horses or cattle and are surprisingly green (especially this dry year). I once looked at a few plots of vacant land in this area. Every time I ride through it, I want to do that again.
A bit north of Powderhorn, you start to drop down into the valley of the Blue Mesa Reservoir. You may remember Blue Mesa as the source of all the US50 construction hassle during my earlier trip westbound. The good news is that CO149 ends at US50 east of the carnage. So no detour or scheduled access required for me this day.
Turning right on US50, you’re in Gunnison in about 10 minutes. There I turned north on CO135 headed toward Crested Butte, a town named after it’s featured mountain: a isolated lone mountain with gentle sloped on one side and cliffs on the other. This give it the look of a cresting wave. There’s an excellent ski area at Crested Butte; I’ve skied it and would love to come back.
Unfortunately, for most people, Crested Butte is a dead end. CO135 ends at Crested Butte and there’s only a short extension of it to the ski area itself. For most travelers, the only way out is to turn around and return to Gunnison. For locals, and travelers in-the-know, there’s another option: Kebler Pass.
County Road 12 is a mostly gravel (really dirt) road from Crested Butte west to Colorado highway 133. Most people avoid it because:
- It’s dirt.
- It’s 35 miles of dirt.
- It’s not open in the winter.
Idiots like me, however, think it sounds like great fun to pilot a large touring motorcycle across 30 miles of dirt. I found County 12 west out of Crested Butte and the adventure began.
During the summer, this road gets quite a lot of use from the locals, so it gets a lot of grading. For motorcyclists, this means that the hard packed dirt often is covered with marbles of rocks loosened by the grader. (It’s either that or washboard, and I hate washboard.) The other added challenge was that the county had been spreading a coating of Magnesium Chloride to try and limit the dust generated by the vehicles. This treatment makes the hard packed surfaces slippery until the road dries out.
Things were going well and the scenery was gorgeous. The route cut through immense mature Aspen forests. I though it was beautiful now; imaging it during peak color in the fall with all those Aspen in bright yellow against the dark green of the conifers. Wow.
Right about the time I was going to navigate a switchback, I saw the telltale red warning light on the dash start to flash.
The rear tire was losing air.
There was a fairly level spot right after the switchback, so I stopped and immediately tried to get the Nightowl up on the center stand, which is a difficult task when the rear tire is flat and the rear frame is that much closer to the ground. To make matters even more challenging, the hard packed road surface, given it’s liberal dousing with MagCloride, was soft enough for the center stand legs to dig into it. I eventually moved the Nightowl to a place where the road was more level and more gravel than hard pack. Then, after struggling mightily, I managed to get the Nightowl up on the center stand.
I dug out my toolkit and proceeded to plug the tire and try and fill it with air. I love how small my AirShot pump is, but it does mean that filling a tire to regulation pressure takes a good long while, long enough that I need to keep the Nightowl running when I’m pumping.
While the tire was pumping, I pulled out my phone to evaluate options for a more permanent fix for the tire (internal patch, preferably) or a replacement. What I found was a hot lot of nothing.
I don’t have cell service out here. That certainly complicates things.
Another driver stopped to check on my and volunteered a more substantial compressor. I unplugged the AirShot and plugged in his massive programmable compressor: just set the target at 42 PSI and stand back and let it go.
As promised, reached the target pressure fairly quickly. I thanked Good Samaritan #1 and put the tools away to see how far I could get down the road.
The first problem was that the pressure indicated for the rear tire was only 31 PSI, so that fancy compressor wasn’t very accurate. The second problem was that the rear tire started loosing air again after only a few miles of travel.
This is where I because acutely aware of my limited supply of plugs: two more. My normal mode of operation in this situation is to limp along as far as possible on the plugged tire. When it got too low, stop, replug if necessary, inflate, and travel as far as possible again. In the past, I’ve made it all the way from North Carolina to Michigan on about half-a-dozen plugs. I couldn’t do that here. I really needed to get maximum miles out of each plug.
With the rear tire flat again, I was having problems (again) getting the bike up on the center stand. Good Samaritan #2 rolls up on a Harley Softail and proceeded to help me out. We get the Nightowl up on the center stand (on the fourth try), I installed my second-to-last tire plug, and I inflated it as best as I could. After about 20 PSI, it just started dumping air out around the plug.
I decide to try and ride it as far as possible in it’s under inflated state. Good Samaritan #2 was kind enough to tag along at my slow pace to provide morale support and more lifting assistance should I need it.
The miles slowly rolled and the pressure in the rear tire stayed at 20 PSI. Eventually, the dirt road gave way to actual pavement, and finally the intersection with CO133 came into view.
I decided to try and top off the rear tire again before starting along the paved highway. Good Samaritan #2 bid me farewell and headed off to the west.
With the AirShop attempting to add 20 PSI to an, unfortunately, slightly porous tire, the inflate job took a good long time. I used the break to take a few photos.
Progress seemed to stop at 39 PSI, so I packed up the pump quickly, hopped on, and headed up CO133.
I made it about 10 miles when the rear tire dropped to 20 PSI. I rolled a few more miles at a slower pace, but unlike before when the pressure maintained 20 PSI for a long time, this time it started dropping like a stone.
I pulled over and got the Nightowl up on the center stand before the rear tire was totally flat. A quick inspection revealed that the plug was gone; probably pulled into the tire.
I checked my phone again; still no signal.
With no other option, I installed my last plug and re-inflated the rear tire. This time, all I could cram into it was 20 PSI.
That’s not good.
I got further down the road, but progress was slowed by the climb up McClure Pass. The pressure was dropping fast now, and it was all I could do to coax the near flat rear tire to roll into a parking area at the summit of McClure Pass.
Let’s take stock:
- Flat rear tire.
- No more plugs to attempt to repair it.
- The pump works, but with no plug in place, the air escapes faster than I can pump it in.
- I have no phone service, so no calling a wrecker for a lift.
- It looks like it’s about to rain.
This is where I point out the stupidity of those few people who believe that a cell phone and a credit card are all the tools you need when you tour on a motorcycle. If you never (ever) venture off the interstate highway system, perhaps you can get away with this. If you exhibit even an inkling of adventure and leave the beaten path… well, there you are. Totally fubar, just like I was right now.
The Nightowl wasn’t going anywhere.
The evening’s futility
That’s about when a pickup passing in the opposite direction slowed down and Good Samaritan #3, the fantastic Jim, asked if I needed help. I emphatically answers in the positive.
With Jim’s help, I was able to move the Nightowl to a better location, get the flat rear tire up on a board, and (eventually) get the Nightowl up on the center stand. As the rain began to fall, I got out the tools to remove the rear tire.
The idea was to take overnight supplies and the tire down to Carbondale; the nearest town. There, I’d stay the night (it’s almost 7pm already) and make arrangements to patch the tire in the morning. Then I’d need a ride back to the bike and then I could get down the road.
I left everything I could on the bike since is was very likely that I’d have to carry everything I took with me. I grabbed the top-case liner because that contained all my clothes and toiletries. I grabbed the tent roll because that doesn’t fit in any compartment that I can lock. The helmet, chaps, gloves, etc. all when in the now-empty top case. I locked up the compartments, threw the bags and tire into Jim’s pickup, and off we went to Carbondale, about 22 miles to the north.
The first foreshadowing of the night’s frustrations came when I finally got phone service about four miles outside of Carbondale. I checked my two favorite apps for motels (Wyndham Rewards and Hotels.com) and both came up empty.
We stopped at Carbondale Car Care, a likely candidate for patching my tire, and I hid the tire between a couple of empty 55 gallon drums in front of the garage. That way I wouldn’t have to carry it (along with my luggage) there in the morning. They opened at 7am, so thing to do until then except… find a room.
In Colorado, at almost 8pm, in the first summer after a year-long lockdown where everybody seemed to start doing more outdoor activities in an attempt to socially distance.
Yup. I’m screwed.
We stopped at all the hotels in Carbondale: no vacancy. I looked up AirBnB: nothing. I looked up campgrounds, including calling about seven of them: nada. Jim drove me all the way to Glenwood Springs because it has more motels: still no vacancy.
Back in Carbondale, as a joke, Jim had called the fanciest hotel he could think of with the reasoning that more exclusive properties would be less likely to be completely full. It turned out that the Hotel Colorado was not full, but the only room(s) were three-bed suites for $275/night.
Now that we’d exhausted every other avenue, we pulled up to the Hotel Colorado.
I entered the building prepared to swallow the exorbitant cost just to get the day to end and get some sleep.
The last three-bed suite had been taken a mere five minutes before my request.
I was at the end of my rope and getting increasingly tired and cranky. I told Jim it was time to give up and go back to Carbondale (that was in the direction he needed to go, and that’s where the tire was). During the trip, we discussed where I could pitch a tent serruptitiously in Carbondale without the cops kicking me out.
I also mentioned that I could just make a nuisance of myself in the town square and get thrown into the drunk tank for the night.
Jim attempted to deliver me to an old skate park that had some woods near it, but it had been built over by something else. We drove by the schools and I saw a few places I thought I could exploit. I unloaded my gear and tried to give Jim some dollars for his trouble, but he backed away like I was handing him a case of the clap. Jim headed home and I headed into the dark to find a place to rest my head.
After about 30 minutes of reconnoitering, I found a well-wooded drainage area next to what looked like a community garden area. It was far off the nearby roads, but it was only about 50 feet from a walking/jogging path that passed behind the schools. I was strung out and ready to lie down, so I started to set up my tent… as it started to rain.
I managed to get the tent far enough up that I could shove my gear inside before it got too wet. I staked out the tent and crawled inside to take stock of the situation.
The situation was far from ideal.
Remember, the only reason I’d grabbed my tent bad was that I couldn’t lock it up back on the Nightowl. The good news was that I had a tent, a sleeping pad, and a pillow. I did not, however, have a sleeping bag; it was in one of the saddlebags on the Nightowl.
I checked weather and it was going to continue to rain for another three hours, after which it would cool down to 51º F (10.6º C) for an overnight low. For walking around on a sunny day, that’s plenty warm. For trying to sleep during a wet night, it was going to be chilly.
I proceeded to layer up with a long sleeve shirt, a flannel shirt, my motorcycle jacket, and my long underwear bottoms. I would eventually add a second layer of socks when I awoke in the middle of the night with cold feet. Otherwise, I did get some sleep.
Day 13 map
Note: This map also includes my travels after I parked the Nighowl at McClure Pass.
Day 14, in all it’s splendor…
During the night, my only close calls were two joggers (the same jogger twice?) that wore a headlamp and was jogging the path that ran close by my tent. Once I could hear a dog jogging along too; the other time not.
The rain had ended overnight and it was partly sunny. I wasn’t overly chilled and getting up and moving around helped me warm up. Now in the light of day, I could see that my impromptu campsite was actually pretty good.
I packed up and started the walk (a little over a mile) to Carbondale Car Care to see what they could do with my tire. Carrying both bags ended up being a bit much for this distance. It was after 7am when I was still several blocks out, so I called them on the phone.
It turns out that their tire changing machine wouldn’t work on a motorcycle tire. They couldn’t help.
One other resource I’d neglected to try the previous evening was the local entries in the BMW MOA Anonymous book. There were three of them listed in the Carbondale area and I called them at about 7:30am. I got voicemail for all three and left three messages describing my plight.
I walked the rest of the way to Carbondale Car Care and discussed my options:
- The other tire place in town opened at 8am.
- The closest motorcycle shop was halfway to Glenwood Springs; they were a KTM shop and they opened at 10am.
- The next closest motorcycle shop was in Glenwood Springs; they were called Karl Malone Motorsports (yes, like the basketball player) and they opened at 9am.
At 8am I called the other tire shop in town. No, they couldn’t work with a motorcycle wheel either.
My next best option was the KTM dealer, so I needed to make my way over to them. I asked if the Car Care guys would be OK with me leaving my two bags in their care. The owner had me put them at the back of his office. Nice guys.
Lucky for me, there’s an excellent bus system all the way between Glenwood Springs and Aspen. All I had to do was leverage the bus system to visit one of both of these shops. I figured out how to buy bus passes and took the Local bus down to the convenience store stop closest to the KTM dealer.
It was still 45 minutes to the KTM dealer’s opening time, so I got some breakfast at the sandwich stand in the convenience store. I’d skipped dinner the previous night, so I was pretty hungry. With some food in my belly, it was time to walk over to the KTM dealer.
A walk of a quarter-mile is no big deal when you’re just walking. When you’re lugging 40 lbs of rear wheel/tire, even short walks become more taxing.
It turned out that this KTM dealer only sold and service KTM’s dirt bike offerings. They didn’t have patches and they certainly didn’t have a replacement tire for my bike.
I walked back to the bus stop and called the Karl Malone shop. As I was being passed from operator, to service desk, to parts desk, I was hoping that the next bus to Glenwood Springs wouldn’t show up before I knew I should be going in that direction. Luckily, they discovered three different tires that would work. All I had to do is get to them.
I took the bus to Glenwood Springs and got off at the closes stop uphill from the Karl Malone shop. What’s another 1/4 mile walk, right? This time, I lucked out and a passing pickup driver had pity on the poor bastard lucking a motorcycle wheel down the sidewalk. Good Samaritan #4 picked me up and drove me down the street to the Karl Malone shop.
The guys at Karl Malone welcomed me, gave me a bottle of water, and brought out the three tire models they could install. I chose the Michelin Pilot 4 GT and sent them off to do the swap. Meanwhile, I retired to the comfy lounge chairs upstairs to drink my water and perhaps doze for a few minutes.
The tire swap took longer than expected, but only because they were having trouble balancing the wheel. Apparently, there is not a slight wobble to the rim, even without a tire installed. I’m thinking I probably torqued the tire a bit while driving on it in a partially deflated state. I guess there’s a new rear rim in my future.
Now armed with my new tire, I walked over to the next bus stop down the line and waited. The Glenwood Springs bus showed up about 15 minutes later. I step onboard and the drive looks at the wheel and says, “I don’t think you can bring that on board.”
I’m incredulous, “I’ve ridden three different busses with it this morning!”
She says, “Let me check with dispatch.”
Dispatch was reasonable and let me on board. Jesus, what will it be next?
Two bus transfers later, I’m back in Carbondale and at the Car Care place where my stuff was stored. They seemed genuinely happy to see that I’d acquired a new tire, but were confused that the KTM dealer couldn’t help.
Now all I needed was a ride back to the summit of McClure pass, 22 miles away to the south. Unfortunately, all the Car Care guys were working on different vehicles, otherwise the owner said he’d have one drive me up. I took my wheel, walked across the street, and stuck out my thumb.
Damn, I can’t remember the last time I hitch-hiked.
I wasn’t there five minutes before a pickup with a trailer of equipment stopped. I threw my wheel in the back and climbed in. Good Samaritan #5 said he was only going as far as Redstone, but that was still 2/3rds the way to McClure Pass, so I was plenty happy to make it that far in one ride.
It turns out that Good Samaritan #5 used to ride, owning 17 bikes over his lifetime. (I think owning three is a lot.) He asked about my situation and I spend most of the way to Redstone explaining all the hoops I’d had to jump through thus far. We had some good laughs over the comedy of logistical nightmares.
When we reached Redstone, Good Samaritan #5 just kept driving. I asked if that wasn’t his stop, and he said, “With all you’ve been through today, I’m driving you to the top.”
His pickup lugged that trailer all the way to summit of McClure pass. When we reached the turnout at the summit, there was the Nightowl, looking forlorn and injured with no back wheel.
I started to get out the tools to install the wheel when Good Samaritan #5 produced a cordless drill to help speed up installation of the wheel bolts. This guy is going straight to heaven when he passes.
With the Nightowl whole again, I rode back to Carbondale (my original destination yesterday) and dropped by the Car Care guys to buy gas and pick up my stuff. I thanked them for all their help.
Now, finally, I can start the day’s ride. It’s 3:30pm.
Day 14’s ride
But first, let’s get two things out of the way:
- My plan was to do Kebler Pass on one day and Independence Pass the next. That wasn’t going to change.
- I was going to reserve a room on the other side of Independence Pass now. No more flailing around in futility trying to find a room.
As expected, there weren’t many rooms to be had, but I did find one in a Rodeway Inn in Leadville, Colorado. I’d stayed there before twice over the years, but back then it was a Super 8. Frankly, I didn’t care what brand they were, as long as I could get a room.
At this point, I didn’t even care about the rain clouds that were hovering over the mountains east off Aspen. I was riding Independence Pass, and that was it.
The rest of the ride was blissfully unencumbered by further disaster. The miles to Aspen went quickly; This late in the day all the traffic flow is out of Aspen. Aspen itself is still Aspen: trendy as hell, very neatly kept, and too expensive for me to do much other than ride through.
Independence pass was really nice to start, but then two things happened:
- The rain started.
- The temperature dropped to 45º F (7.2º C).
I stopped and, for the first time this trip, put on my rain gear. The rest of the pass was slow and cold. I marked some of the video over the pass; I’ll post what I can salvage later.
Once off the pass, I was only 14 miles from my room for the night. That went quickly, but I’m a little concerned about the wobble that the guys at Karl Malone said they found in my rim. At about 75, I can feel it. There’s now definitely a new rear rim in my future.
Leadville is in the higher elevation, so it was raining there too. I checked in, unpacked, and went out to dinner. Downtown Leadville, where all the nice places are, is only a few miles away from my hotel, so I made the ride with just the rain suit top and not the bottoms.
I decided to eat at Quincy’s a steak house. I had the 9oz filet mignonette with a slice of bacon wrapped around it, a baked potato, and a salad. I accompanied this selection with an Old Fashioned and finished it off with a piece of caramel cheese cake.
Now back to the hotel to write this mess up.
Day 14 map
Yes, it’s only 111 miles today, but given the day, I’ll take it.
I had aspirations to head north and do yet another pass that I haven’t done before (Cameron Pass on CO14). Unfortunately, there going to be a lot of rain in the upper elevations tomorrow, and I’ve had enough excitement for this trip. I’ll be heading for the slab, down to Denver, and starting the sprint for home.